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July 2012

Foolproof proofreading

Thanks to Nick at the London Assembly and Veronika at the Victoria and Albert Museum for inspiring me to write this post.  And thanks to the redoubtable Richard Nordquist for some of this material.  I’ve linked to one of Richard’s pages below.



"In the first place,” wrote Mark Twain, “God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made proof-readers."



If editing is like servicing a car, proofreading is like cleaning it. When we’re editing, we’re fine-tuning the text; when we’re proofreading, we’re removing all the errors to make it look good.  And, just as when we’re cleaning the windows, the paintwork and the chrome, there will nearly always be a little smudge somewhere that proofreading will miss.

Why is proofing so hard?  Twain, hardened journalist that he was, had the answer.  In a letter to Walter Bessant in February 1898, he wrote:

You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don't know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes – but not often enough – the printer's proof-reader saves you – and offends you – with this cold sign in the margin: (?) and you search the passage and find that the insulter is right – it doesn't say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn't light the jets.

There's no foolproof formula for perfect proofreading. As Twain realized, it's too tempting to see what we meant to write rather than what we actually wrote. But these tips should help you see (or hear) your errors before anybody else does.


Before you proofread  


Get all the document-specific details right. 

Check all the names, facts, numbers, acronyms and specialized language that you’re using only in this piece. 

If a name is persistently troublesome – Gentileschi, say, or ArcelorMittal – consider putting a simple abbreviation wherever you need the name (Gti, maybe, or AM) and then use the Find and Replace function to insert the name correctly just once.

(Cntrl+F; type in the abbreviation; click on ‘Replace’ and type the full name; and then choose ‘Replace all’.)


Edit paragraphs, sentences and words. 

Work on topic sentences and the more general focus of the document.  Eliminate long and overcomplicated sentences.  Activate passive verbs and translate abstract nouns into verbs.


Take a break.

Set your text aside for a while (15 minutes, a day, a week – as long as you possibly can) between writing and proofing.  Putting some distance between you and the text will help you see mistakes more easily.




(Whipped cream at your own risk.)




While you proofread

Print out a hard copy.

For some reason, mistakes will show up more easily on paper than on screen.


Look for one type of problem at a time.

Read through your text several times.  Concentrate first on grammar, then on spelling, then on punctuation.


Read your text aloud.

Better yet, ask a friend or colleague to read it aloud to you. You’re more likely to hear a problem (a faulty verb ending; lack of agreement between singulars and plurals; missing words) that you can’t see. Better still:


Use a spellchecker and grammarchecker.

Of course they’re not foolproof, but if they show you a mistake easily – well, that saves you the effort.


Use a good dictionary. Dictionary

Your spellchecker can tell you only if a word is a word, not if it's the right word.  Immoral or amoral?  Continual or continuous?  Constrain or restrict?  Use the dictionary. 

(And look below for further advice, and lists of commonly confused words and homonyms.)


Use a line ruler.


Put a straight edge under the line you’re proofing – a ruler, a sheet of paper, a card – so that you concentrate only on that line.



Read it backwards.

It’s a great way to catch spelling errors.  Read from right to left (unless you’re proofing Arabic or Hebrew), starting from the end of the document.  It’s a good technique for focussing on individual words.


Create your own proofreading checklist.

Assemble a list of mistakes you often make, and refer to it every time you proof.  For example, I need a list of all the words that can end only in –ise, rather than those that can be spelled –ise or -ize. (It begins:  advertise, advise, apprise, arise, chastise, chemise,...)


Get help.

Invite someone else to proofread your text after you have reviewed it. A new set of eyes may immediately spot errors that you've overlooked.


Check out words with different meanings

Many of us confuse words that have different meanings.  Do you know the difference between uninterested and disinterested?  Imply and infer?  Criterion and criteria?

The problem here, of course, is that we won’t spot when we’re using a word incorrectly if we don’t know that we use it incorrectly. The process of learning correct meanings never ends. 

One of the best ways to improve in our use of words is to browse through a list of regularly misused words and check out a few of the ones you know you use.  Slowly – one word at a time – you’ll become more proficient.

There’s a long list of such words here.

Typos can create misspelled words, which often become real words that spellcheckers miss.  One of the most common typing errors is form for from.  Here are some others.


  • Its/Tis
  • Bear/Bare
  • Meal/Male
  • Read/Dear
  • Dear/Dare
  • Wake/Weak
  • Reap/Rape
  • Smile/Slime
  • Break/Brake (homonyms)
  • Bus/Sub
  • Liar/Rail
  • Step/Pets
  • Miles/Limes
  • Lemon/Melon
  • Lake/Leak
  • Ear/Are
  • No/On
  • Ten/Net
  • Pan/Nap
  • Pat/Tap
  • Bread/Beard
  • Eat/Ate/Tea
  • Part/Trap
  • Pear/Pare (homonyms)
  • Stew/Wets
  • Scar/Cars
  • Apes/Peas
  • Seal/Sale
  • Pale/Leap

Other typos can include misusing homonyms: words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings.  For example:

  • Land/Lend
  • Where/Wear/We're/Were
  • Two/Too/To
  • Mail/Male
  • Break/Brake
  • Dear/Deer
  • Flee/Flea
  • Plain/Plane
  • Bore/Boar
  • Sun/Son
  • Bear/Bare
  • Complement/Compliment
  • Here/Hear
  • Toll/Tall
  • Stall/Stole
  • Then/Than
  • Its/It's
  • There/Their/They're
  • Your/You're
  • Effect/Affect
  • Except/Accept
  • Set/Sat
  • Flair/Flare
  • Meet/Meat
  • Sand/Send
  • Stare/Stair
  • Fair/Fare
  • Tan/Ten
  • Heel/Heal
  • Real/Reel
  • Hair/Hare


Word of the day: peloton



Watching the Olympic cycling from Box Hill this afternoon, I noticed the word and worked out that it meant ‘the main pack of cyclists in a race’.  And fairly obviously French.  (How many other words in professional cycling are French, I wonder?)


Iball of thread

The word’s intriguing.  Its original meaning in Middle French,  according to the OED, is ‘a little ball, especially of thread’. 

Movie-poster-platoonFrench then imaginatively applied that image to a small group of soldiers in the 17th century – and gave us the word ‘platoon’. 

(That –on suffix in French usually suggests something small.)  Walter Scott uses ‘peloton’ in the military sense. 

By the late 19th century, French is using the word as part of cyclisme, and that meaning appears in print in English in 1939 – in Cycling magazine.Pellet


The word was originally spelled peleton, which indicates its other meaning: a pellet, itself a diminutive pill: in old French, the word could mean a ball,  a roundel in heraldry, a cannonball, or a regurgitated pellet of food material (all tangled up like thread, perhaps...). 

There’s one other sense of peloton: as a type of glass.  According to a quotation supplied by the OED:



“peloton glass is an art glass first made in Bohemia and patented by Wilhelm Kralik in 1880. The body of the piece is clear, opaque white, or a transparent, colored glass. The body is then rolled in threads of colored glass, reheated, and pressed into shape.”



That thread of imagery is rich and suggestive.  I’ll look at the peloton differently now:  that tightly bunched cluster cyclists weaving its way round the course like some tangled ball of thread.